1. Intonation contours in English
  2. Cross-linguistic differences
    1. Contrastive emphasis
    2. Questions


Intonation contours in English

Not all rises and falls in pitch that occur in the course of an English phrase can be attributed to stress. The same set of segments and word stresses can occur with a number of pitch patterns.

Consider the difference between:

The rise and fall of pitch throughout is called its intonation contour.

English has a number of intonation patterns which add conventionalized meanings to the utterance: question, statement, surprise, disbelief, sarcasm, teasing.

An important feature of English intonation is the use of an intonational accent (and extra stress) to mark the focus of a sentence. Normally this focus accent goes on the last major word of the sentence, but it can come earlier in order to emphasize one of the earlier words or to contrast it with something else.
Rogers 5-5

Cross-linguistic differences

People have a tendency to think of intonation as being directly linked to the speaker's emotions. In fact, the meaning of intonation contours is as conventionalized as any other aspect of language. Different languages can use different conventions, giving rise to the potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Two examples of cross-linguistic differences in intonation patterns:

Contrastive emphasis

Many languages mark contrastive emphasis like English, using an intonational accent and additional stress.

Many other languages use only syntactic devices for contrastive emphasis, for example, moving the emphasized phrase to the beginning of the sentence.

Listeners who speak the second type of language will not necessarily interpret extra pitch and volume as marking emphasis. Listeners who don't speak the second type of language will not necessarily interpret a different word order as marking emphasis (as opposed to assuming that the speaker doesn't know basic grammar).


The normal intonation contours for questions in English use: Using a different pattern typically adds something extra to the question. E.g., falling intonation on a Yes/No question can be interpreted as abruptness. Rising intonation on a Wh-question can imply surprise or that you didn't hear the answer the first time and are asking to have it repeated.

These patterns too can be different across languages. Even small differences can be important:

reading the one language with the intonation pattern appropriate to the other can give rise to entirely unintentional effects: English with Russian intonation sounds unfriendly, rude or threatening, to the native speaker of English; Russian with an English intonation sounds affected or hypocritical to the native speaker of Russian.
Comrie (1984); "Interrogativity in Russian"

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